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(Shanachie 78044 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/28/2001)
The revival of traditional Irish and Celtic music continues strongly after more than a decade. While some veteran performers like the Chieftains have been at the heart of the scene, a respectable number of younger performers have been taking up the cause, plunging into traditional styles with sometimes astonishing musicianship, and often taking it in new directions. Clannad and Enya have mixed Celtic and New Age, while others have mixed Celtic and rock and even hip-hop, and still others stay with traditional acoustic instrumentation while bringing a lot of other influences into their repertoire, doing distinctly non-traditional material. Among the very brightest lights on the Celtic scene is the band Solas, who emerged in the mid 1990s, lead by Seamus Egan, known for bringing jaw-dropping instrumental prowess, a remarkable understanding of traditional music, and a degree of eclecticism within the acoustic paradigm that sets their music apart.
Through their first years of existence, Karan Casey was Solas' prominent lead vocalist. Recently, she departed amicably from the group to take on the duties of raising a family, and to launch her own solo career at somewhat less hectic pace. She has just released her first post-Solas CD, called The Wind Begins to Sing, and it gives us a chance to hear one of the finest voices in Irish music doing a fine collection of songs that reflect her diverse interests, including jazz.
Karan Casey, now 32, was born in a small town in County Waterford, Ireland, where she says that as long as she can remember, she was surrounded by music and singing, and always encouraged to join in. She received formal classical training, and also struck up an association with the Foran family, known for their traditional folk-singing. But at the same time, she was also drawn to jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, spending many an hour listening to their recordings. While she does not often perform in a jazz style, Ms. Casey nevertheless feels a profound influence by the jazz singers in her phrasing and vocal technique. She finds what she calls a "strong similarity between traditional and jazz idioms."
But, that influence is subtle for most of this album, which is actually her third solo recording, following her outstanding 1997 solo debut, Songlines and a children's album released last year. On The Wind Begins to Sing, she is joined by Donald Shaw, of the durable Scottish band Capercaillie, who served as producer of the album and played keyboards. Other regulars include bassist Ewan Vernal, and guitarists Robbie Overson and John Doyle. But the personnel varies from one track to the next, ranging from an Irish-sounding string band to some starkly instrumented pieces backed only by Shaw's synthesizers. The result is a memorable album that combines Ms. Casey's superb vocals with interesting songs that often tell stories, sad ones, for the most part, with some steeped in the old traditions when songs took the place of television and movies in telling tales of sex and violence. In fact, that is one of the more striking parts of this CD: hearing Ms. Casey's remarkably pure, appealing vocals singing lyrics that are sometimes a bit gory.
Leading off is one such song, Who Put the Blood, a story of a murder and attempts by the perpetrator to escape. The musical setting of the traditional song is a nice example of how Ms. Casey and her colleagues combine timeless elements with some decidedly contemporary influences, including a vaguely funky beat. <<>>
Another highlight is the traditional song The King's Shilling, about a young man who goes off to fight in the king's army and finds that it is not as glamorous as he might have thought, while his girl pines. <<>>
There are a couple of tracks sung partly or entirely in Gaelic. One is the very pretty ballad whose title translates as Raise Up My Love. The translation is provided in the CD booklet, and it's another sad tale of lost love and separation. <<>>
Back in the sex and violence department is the traditional song Eppie Morrie, about a woman kidnapped by a abusive man. She manages to get away with some help. <<>>
The album has a pair of stark mostly acapella performances by Ms. Casey, highlighting her compelling vocals. Weary of Lying Alone, or "lee-ing" alone, as it is pronounced in the song, is another sad story of loneliness, accompanied by Donald Shaw's spacey synthesizer. <<>>
The other similar arrangement comes from a very different source. Strange Fruit is a song first recorded by jazz singer Billie Holiday, written about the lynching of African Americans in the South. Again, it's just Ms. Casey's stunning voice with Shaw's eery synthesizer accompaniment. <<>>
The CD also contains a couple of songs by contemporary songwriters in the traditional style. Where Are You Tonight I Wonder is another bittersweet song of longing for an absent love. The piano and string arrangment is an interesting departure from the familiar Irish band setting. <<>>
Also included is an English folk song, The Snows They Melt the Soonest, once recorded by The Pentangle. The musical setting here is introspective, but the lyrical mood a bit more hopeful. <<>>
Karan Casey's new solo album, The Wind Begins to Sing, her first since her departure from Solas, is a delightful recording highlighting one of the finest voices today in Celtic music. The album does represent something of a departure from the sound of Solas, with the keyboards of Donald Shaw taking a prominent role. While the material is mostly traditional, the arrangements are quite original and provide a nice blend of the timeless with more contemporary elements, such as the very effective use of synthesizers. Through it, Ms. Casey's voice remains at the center, and her memorable performances, which occasionally hint at her influence by jazz singers, will likely win her more fans. About the only down-side to the album is that almost all the songs are sad stories about unrequited love, loneliness, parting, and death. But with Ms. Casey's performances, one can't help but be uplifted by the music.
From a sonic standpoint, I'll give the CD gets a grade "A." The acoustic instrumentation has admirable clarity. While there are some studio effects on some of the pieces, they are used very creatively. Ms. Casey's vocals are well-recorded, and the dynamic range of the CD is better than average.
Modern Celtic music continues to flourish, with a new generation of outstanding artists taking the traditional elements to new places. Karen Casey's The Wind Begins to Sing, stands out even among a scene that has given us a lot of fine music lately.
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